FOXBORO — The field hockey season will begin for area high school teams next week and it will be unlike any other.
Four players have been taken off of the field, reducing competition to 7-on-7, including a goalkeeper. In addition, the most coveted of scoring opportunities in the penalty corner, which allows attacking teams to have a decisive man-power advantage in the offensive zone, will be no longer.
“To have six girls on a field the size of a football field, with masks and goggles on and to ask them to play the sport the way that everyone knew it to be, is insane,” Bishop Feehan High field hockey coach Betsy D’Ambrosia said of the modifications to the rules of play.
Under new health and safety guidelines due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the MIAA altered playing rules in an effort to foster “safe” competition for several of the fall sports. While football was wiped clean from the calendar, field hockey and soccer have undergone the most drastic changes in the customary style of play.
“It’s going to be very difficult, very challenging,” King Philip High coach Lisa Cropper said of the new guidelines and regulations, almost as if she is teaching her Warriors a different game than the one she has been a proponent of for better than two decades.
Field hockey will now consist of six field players and a goalkeeper instead of 10 field players and a goalkeeper.
And “restarts” from 25 yards away will replace penalty corners.
Upon recommendations from the MIAA Task Force for fair and equitable competition, it was deemed that all penalty corners “will be forbidden with fouls committed inside the circle,” thus taking away the often well-rehearsed penalty corner players from either the left or ride sides of the net. In addition, all players must remain five yards away from the team in possession of the ball on the now “free hits.”
Play commencing with 7-on-7 and without penalty corners has drastically altered strategies and substitution patterns for coaches in the upcoming season.
“It’s like coaching a whole new game,” Foxboro High coach Melissa Bordieri said of the alterations.
Practice sessions over the first week of the modified season have often been with a check of the rule book to determine what situations and stances might be allowable.
Field hockey teams participating in the MIAA Tournament often go to a 7-on-7 format of play for overtime. But the outcome of that 10-minute session is often decided within minutes due to much more open space on the field with fewer players. If the score remains tied after the overtime period, the teams determine a winner in a shootout session.
Everyone agrees that field hockey will become much more like ice hockey this season. Coaches will have to frequently substitute players, perhaps every minute, in order to prevent physical exhaustion.
“I’ve been to a lot of Bishop Feehan hockey games so I know how that (line changes) works and we’ll be doing pretty much the same,” D’Ambrosia said of her Shamrocks. “You can have six super kids out there, your best players or your best players out there for overtime and generally those are over pretty quickly. That’s fine, that’s understandable. But to ask kids to go out there and run the length of the football field for 60 minutes will be very challenging.”
With the necessity for more student-athletes and better conditioned players for a team to compete, many coaches are looking at increasing the depth of their rosters — similar to ice hockey with third and fourth lines.
“We’ve had a few practices and I’ve noticed that it’s difficult for girls to catch their breaths with masks on,” Cropper said. “It was hard enough for them playing 10-on-10 to catch their breaths with all of the running. Now we’re asking them to play with four less players and with masks.
“Normally in overtime, you play with less kids on the field, but that’s at the end of the season when the kids are in better shape too,” she added. “With or without a mask on, I give the girls a lot of credit, they’ve been gung ho about getting out there and playing again.’
The other more significant changes to the game will be the elimination of pre-game inspection of sticks by officials. Instead, the head coach of each team will be responsible to insure that the equipment is legal. Matches will be competed over the span of four quarters instead of two halves. The other change is that officials will no longer use traditional whistles to signal a foul or a violation. Instead, electronic whistles and air horns will be utilized.
All players must also conform to the MIAA standards for mask and face coverings.
“Face coverings comprised of multiple layers and a tighter weave are more effective and preferred,” the MIAA said in its guidelines. “During play when spacing between players is greater than 10 feet, players may momentarily take brief face covering relief. Coaches and game officials will also be required to wear mask, but “may remove their face covering briefly for a break at any point when they are socially distanced greater than six feet.
“Most of the girls do play some 7-on-7, but that’s in the offseason, on smaller fields, during captains’ practices or indoors,” Bordieri added. “Really, there’s going to be no reprieve, no chance for you to get a breather/ It’s going to be a lot like (ice) hockey, it’ll kind of be like a track meet too.”
Instead of putting in a half-dozen or more variations on penalty corner plays, Bordieri is now figuring out who are the Warriors’ best hitters to create scoring chances 25 yards away from the goal and grooming trios of players to form cohesive units for substitution shifts.
“All of the coaches have been talking about this for a while now,” Bordieri said of the revised rules. “We’re going to try our best to get used to the new 60 minutes of field hockey. We’ll need everyone on the roster too. It’s going to be a lot different, so much different than the field hockey we have been playing.”